After 136 years, the LA Times votes to unionize and our student is nominated delegate

 by Danielle Parenteau-Decker
I first put up this sign here on my desk in news and when I transitioned back to features, I took it with me. Photo by Danielle Parenteau-Decker 2018.

“Yes,” “no,” “no,” “yes,” “no,” “yes.”

When the National Labor Relations Board began calling out the votes Jan. 19 from the Los Angeles Times’ Jan. 4 election on whether to unionize, it seemed to be neck and neck, recalled Matt Pearce, a national reporter and union organizer at the Times.

Then, the pro-union ballots started to pull away. At one point, 40 yeses in a row were read off, by the count of data journalist Anthony Pesce, also an organizer.

Newsroom employees ended up voting 248-44 to form a union—that’s 85 percent. The decision is particularly momentous because the 136-year-old Times has never been part of a union before, which set it apart from other major papers such as The New York Times and Washington Post. Now, employees will be represented by The NewsGuild-CWA.

This newsroom coffee station is framed by both sides of the paper’s union history. At left is a photo taken in 1910 after two members of the Iron Workers Union bombed the building. To the right is one of several notices of the union election. Photo by Danielle Parenteau-Decker 2018.

LAT reporters and editors work tirelessly to give a voice to people who need one. Now, it’s the newsroom that needs a voice. Union advocates want newsroom employees to have “a say in decisions that directly affect our livelihoods and our working conditions,” according to the organizing committee’s website.

The vote was especially meaningful to me because unions are in my blood. My father, John Parenteau, was a union leader with Pan Am. It was only natural that I would end up getting involved with unions myself as I did as an intern in the Bay News Rising summer program in San Francisco in 2014.  Bay News Rising is a project of Pacific Media Workers Guild TNG-CWA Local 39521.

My journey as a journalist took me through San Francisco State University, where I got my bachelor’s degree, and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where I earned my master’s, with brief stops along the way at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, Sacramento Bee and other media outlets.

Though I felt good about my accomplishments, I never imagined I would land my first full-fledged job at the Los Angeles Times, a paper I grew up reading and admiring, but that is exactly what happened. I started working at the Times in November as a copy editor on the news and features desks as a member of the Minority Editorial Training Program, or Metpro, an initiative at the Times and the Chicago Tribune to boost newsroom diversity and to give more young journalists a foot in the door.

Current and former Metpros, as we are collectively known, aided in the organizing efforts, as they were acutely aware of the need to fight to be recognized and fairly compensated for their worth.

Kristina Bui, a copy editor and former Metpro, “became a union organizer because I believe that when you love something, you take care of it,” she said. She also said that she sees unionizing as a way to build “an upward path for myself, my peers and generations of journalists to come.”

Kristina Bui, a copy editor and organizer at the Los Angeles Times, shows off her union spirit in the Globe lobby of the Times building. Photo by Danielle Parenteau-Decker 2018.

While the Times has never had a union before, this was not the first time the newsroom tried to organize. This was the first movement, however, that picked up any real momentum, let alone succeeded. “I think the biggest reason our campaign was so successful was that we found a way to take all the anger in the newsroom and channel it into something more positive and productive,” Bui said.

Organizers spent months talking to their fellow staffers to hear their concerns, to find out what kinds of changes they most wanted to see and to discuss the union’s potential role. Those conversations weren’t always easy.

“Convincing each other that we could improve conditions took a lot of time and patience,” Bui said. “We needed to get past the years of frustration over job cuts and mismanagement. We had to build trust and hope.”

Corporate management put out argument after argument against the union. One by one, organizers knocked them all down.

The morning of the count, I sat at my desk, visiting Twitter during free moments, checking for updates from organizers who were in the NLRB office where it took place. After the news broke, cheers and applause burst out in parts of the newsroom. My area was more subdued, but the reaction was still positive. “248-44—wow!” I overheard one man say.

Union signs like these can still be seen on cubicles and walls all around the newsroom. Photo by Danielle Parenteau-Decker 2018.

While the result was thrilling, I can’t say it was surprising. Pro-union signs papered the newsroom, tacked to cubicles and taped on walls. Union support ran the gamut, crossing racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation lines and ranging from the youngest employees to the paper’s longest-tenured writer, Doug Smith, who has been at the Times since 1970. Also among the veteran proponents were Pulitzer Prize winner Bettina Boxall and perhaps the paper’s most famous employee—columnist Steve Lopez (aka Robert Downey Jr. in “The Soloist”).

“So maybe unions can’t save the news biz. But they can raise the voices of those who can—journalists,” Lopez told the union committee. “Having written for decades about economic justice, I’m with Los Angeles Times Guild colleagues committed to a mission I share at a newspaper I love.”

Several reporters and editors took to Twitter to share their reasons for supporting the union. “My dream was to work here since middle school,” tweeted Brian De Los Santos, a digital editor. “I wanted my communities—Latinos, youths and LGBTQ—reflected in our coverage. That’s why I’m voting today.”

Benjamin Oreskes, a metro reporter, tweeted that he would be the fourth generation in his family to be part of a union and third to be part of a newspaper guild. His great-grandmother Clara was an immigrant and labor organizer.

About a week before the election, @latguild tweeted out testimonials from numerous employees on why they supported the union. People said they want better representation for minorities, higher pay, stronger job protections and more ways to keep talented journalists from leaving and have a general desire to build a strong future for the Times, its coverage and its newsroom staff.

I had my own reason for voting yes.

One of the most important lessons I learned throughout my schooling and, especially, in Bay News Rising is that the work journalists do has value for which they deserve respect and fair pay. If we don’t get it, we need to stand up and raise our collective voices, because we also deserve to be heard.

Writer’s update:  As the process of actually putting the guild together moves forward, some of my colleagues, who know about my history with unions, nominated me to be one of the paper’s 40-50 delegates. As a delegate, I will be trained to enforce status quo and Weingarten rights, serve as an intermediary between the newsroom and the bargaining committee and provide regular updates on what’s going on to about 10 of my coworkers.

Editor’s note: Danielle Parenteau-Decker is a graduate of our union’s Bay News Rising program.  She is a Metpro Multiplatform Editor at the Los Angeles Times.  Danielle earned her Master of Journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2017.
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Pacific Media Workers Guild

We are the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. We represent more than 1,200 journalists and other media workers, interpreters, translators, union staffs and freelancers.